Academic reform: tread carefully
Ontario’s system isn’t broken, just stressed. Before we try more radical ﬁxes, why not encourage a robust college-university transfer system?
Every so often, Canada goes through a period of time when it is in vogue to criticize universities and the role they play in society. We seem to be in one of those cycles right now, where hardly a week goes by without some article in the media commenting negatively on how universities are managing research, teaching, academic freedom, or commercialization and innovation. Some of this is generated by the annual release of university reports by Maclean’s and the Globe and Mail. On the whole, these reports present Canada’s universities in a very positive light, even while highlighting areas where they can improve. Perhaps it is inevitable that more critical commentary is also published, just in case those of us who work in universities become too complacent.
However, there are also times when there are concerted efforts to question the fundamental structure of Canada’s university system. Because it is decentralized, these critiques usually focus on speciﬁc provincial systems. Having spent most of my professional career in Nova Scotia and then six years in British Columbia, I am all too familiar with the cyclic attempts to question and fundamentally reform the university systems in those provinces.
Today, it seems to be Ontario’s turn to be subject to such scrutiny, with the publication of Academic Reform, in November 2011 (excerpted in University Affairs’ December 2011 issue). Like its 2009 prequel, Academic Transformation, this book contains a great deal of valuable information and insightful analysis, especially its review of university systems worldwide. Where the book falls down is in its attempts to make bold recommendations for radical changes in Ontario public policy towards higher education. Academic Reform proposes the creation of a number of “new universities” focused on undergraduate teaching and very limited research, as the answer to meeting the educational needs of the growing population in the Greater Toronto Area in a manner that is cheaper than the “traditional university.” Yet this radical proposal is based upon a combination of questionable assumptions and simplistic analysis of the options.
Two basic assumptions running through Academic Reform are that the Ontario university system is broken and that the quality of education in the system is declining. Yet when I look for evidence to support these assumptions, there is precious little to ﬁnd. The notion that the Ontario university system is broken derives from Academic Transformation, which concludes that the research university model is too expensive and the current funding framework is unsustainable. That funding framework is based entirely on signiﬁcant growth and as we move towards a demographic environment that does not support such growth, there is no doubt that the funding approach will have to change. But that does not mean that the whole system is broken.
Indeed, the Ontario university system has responded very successfully to virtually all of the policy demands of the provincial government in recent years. This includes increased access, increased opportunities for ﬁrst-generation students, higher rates of retention and graduation, higher rates of employment after graduation, and increasing student satisfaction with their educational experiences. Not bad for a broken system!
The issue of quality seems to come down to one speciﬁc issue related to the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) – a survey that is used widely by North American colleges and universities to measure how engaged students are with their learning experience and that is mandatory for Ontario universities. The speciﬁc issue is that on average, Ontario universities, and Canadian universities in general, score lower than American universities in certain key quality-related questions, including student-faculty interaction and the level of student engagement.
The United States has a much different postsecondary system than Canada, with a diverse mix of public, private non-proﬁt and private for-proﬁt institutions. Also, for the past two decades, per-student funding in the U.S. has signiﬁcantly exceeded that in Canada, and Ontario lags behind the rest of Canada in that category. Now that the ﬁnancial crisis is having severe impacts on the funding of public universities south of the border, with some state institutions facing bankruptcy, it will be interesting to see if these changes have any negative impacts on NSSE scores in the future.
Many of the best U.S. universities charge tuition fees that are eight to 10 times higher, or more, than the Canadian average and have considerable wealth from endowments. Their huge variations in funding, costs and quality are very different from the situation in Canada, where those factors are relatively consistent across the country, despite some provincial variations. Yet, based on these few average NSSE scores, Academic Reform seems to be mesmerized by the U.S. system and proposes emulating it with the creation of a number of U.S.-style, four-year baccalaureate institutions in Ontario. Unfortunately, these are often the very institutions that constitute the lower echelons of the American system.
There are two other important factors in the NSSE survey that also reflect quality: rates of student retention and of graduation. In both categories, Canadian universities perform signiﬁcantly better than U.S. universities overall. Interestingly, the authors of Academic Reform ignore these data, and if they hadn’t they might have noticed that U.S. undergraduate institutions have some of the worst retention and graduation rates. Buying a bad education with a second- or third-rate credential, or not even completing a degree, is not the same as buying a bad meal – it has severe, long-term implications and comes at great cost to the individual. We do not want to move Canada into the realm of creating universities that cannot meet the same standards of high quality that are currently the hallmark of our university system. And we certainly do not want to make such a move without very rigorous and detailed analysis.
In comparing operating costs of the proposed new universities with those of a new campus of a traditional university, Academic Reform uses a simplistic ﬁnancial analysis that excludes a whole host of critical factors that come into play when creating a brand new institution. These include setting up an entirely new administrative structure and team; new academic infrastructures and supports; recruiting and hiring the entire professoriate; and developing and getting approval of completely new curricula for every program on offer. Ask anyone who was involved with the creation of the University of Northern British Columbia how much it costs to set up a brand new institution and how many years before the new university is in a position to admit even a single student. By comparison, when establishing a campus of an existing university the provision of all of these administrative and academic support services are incremental, building on the existing infrastructure in which taxpayers have already invested, and the academic degrees and programs of the existing university can be offered immediately.
Creating a brand new institution from scratch exponentially increases the costs compared with building a new campus of an existing institution, and Academic Reform ignores this in its analysis. Furthermore, a 2003 national study (PDF) comparing instructional costs in the U.S. found that 80 percent of cost differences are accounted for by discipline and program mix, and that comparing institutions with similar program mixes shows no appreciable differences in overall unit instructional costs between research universities and baccalaureate colleges. This study is not referenced in Academic Reform.
Also, the authors claim that by offering the same salaries as existing universities, the new institutions would compete for faculty on an equal basis with traditional universities. Nothing could be further from the truth. Faculty hired by these new universities will be highly qualiﬁed scholars, most having PhDs. They will want to do research and will not be satisﬁed with working in an institution that does not support them conducting a reasonable amount of research and establishing themselves as credible scholars. Most of them will be constantly on the lookout for positions at a “real” university, but in the meantime they will work diligently to push the university administration to provide them more time to do research, administrative support to compete for external funding, and ﬁnancial support for engaging their students in their research activities.
I lived through the latter period of the B.C. experiment with “university colleges,” and that is exactly what happened to those institutions. As they expanded and developed their own degrees and identities, hired excellent faculty who wanted to teach undergraduates and conduct research, and competed with traditional universities for students and resources, they grew out of the legislative box that the government had placed around them and demanded that they be treated as real universities.
Today, the university colleges are no more, having evolved into regional universities (except Okanagan University College, which was split into a separate college and a university campus of the University of British Columbia) that are teaching-focused, primarily serving undergraduates but with scholarly research activities that, while limited by their mandates, support and enrich the undergraduate student learning experience.
So, is there a better approach for the Ontario government to consider? Rather than create costly new institutions, it would make much more sense to use the existing postsecondary infrastructure by identifying a number of colleges in the GTA to offer two-year arts and science programs that would articulate directly into third year at any Ontario university. Such an approach is mentioned in Academic Reform, but is dismissed, sadly, in favour of the “new universities” proposal. Increased upper-level capacity at existing universities could be addressed through the government’s expansion of graduate education, as those professors hired to teach and supervise graduate students would also teach upper-level undergraduate courses.
By adapting the successful B.C. transfer model, Ontario would ﬁnally create a credible college-university transfer system, and give real meaning to the recently established Ontario Council on Articulation and Transfer. This new council is an attempt to emulate the B.C. approach, but the lack of university-level academic programs at Ontario’s colleges means that only limited transfer and articulation will occur. But, if the provincial government identiﬁed a number of colleges in growth regions for the establishment of ﬁrst- and second-year university arts and sciences, and had those programs developed in collaboration with Ontario’s universities to transfer directly into third year at any Ontario university, then the province could develop a real and meaningful college-university transfer system.
Transfer students would complete their upper-year courses, where exposure to the research-learning environment is especially important, at recognized universities, and all Ontario universities could compete for those transfers and contribute to the solution of how to address the GTA population growth. This would address a key issue raised in Academic Reform about the costs of simply expanding the current model, and it would deliver on a goal of the Ontario government to create a more integrated postsecondary system. Why opt for a risky and expensive approach of developing U.S.-style, four-year, teaching-only institutions when we have another more viable option that is based upon a successful Canadian approach to postsecondary education?
Successful undergraduate-focused universities exist in Canada and elsewhere, but the bottom line is that the new institutions that Academic Reform proposes are not universities, and just calling them universities won’t make them so. Universities teach in a scholarly environment that is informed, stimulated and enriched by research. That fundamental principle is also what lies behind successful liberal arts colleges in the U.S., and it is that same principle that has made Ontario, and Canada generally, internationally recognized as having a consistently high quality of universities, from the smallest to the largest. That is not something that we want to put at risk.
Peter Ricketts is provost and vice-president, academic, at Carleton University.
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